But a new program, the first major example of its kind in the sector, is trying to hand workers greater control over their lives. In an industry where fluctuating demand can mean layoffs one minute and overdrive the next, advocates of the CAMI plant’s new overtime banking system say it means flexibility for employee and employer alike, plus job creation to boot.
The agreement negotiated seven months ago by the plant’s union leaders sounds simple: CAMI’s 2,700 workers can put excess hours worked into an overtime “bank” to be taken as paid days off at a later date. The days off are covered by a new pool of workers hired specifically to backfill. But Mike Van Boekel, the plant’s union chair, says the program has “gone down huge” with workers who have never before been able to choose between overtime pay and time in lieu.
“We’ve almost booked 50,000 hours in the first six months,” he says, which has lead to a pool of more than 50 new workers to fill in the gaps.
Van Boekel’s plant is in an enviable position, being the world’s only weld shop for Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain vehicles. Van Boekel says sales are through the roof and the plant can’t physically accommodate the amount of workers needed to meet demand — which explains the grueling schedule for existing employees.
“There’s no such thing as too much jobs, they’re much better than layoffs,” he says.
“When I look at the time pressure statistics, it has definitely become worse over time,” says Margo Hillbrecht, the University of Waterloo’s Associate Director of Research for the index.
And, as Gordie Todd learned, that can have physical consequences. The Institute of Work and Health’s Dr. Heather Scott-Marshall has studied the impact of work-life balance on health, looking in particular at the impact of unpaid overtime. Her most recent research found around a 66 per cent decline in self-rated health for every year of “exposure.”
But Ontario’s employment standards legislation does not expressly address flexible work arrangements. Lieu time agreements are instead made on an ad-hoc basis between employers and employees, or negotiated by unions. In places such as the U.K., however, labour laws give every worker the explicit right to request workplace flexibility.
Greater flexibility for workers could also act as an important employment strategy, argues Murnighan. In addition to the increasing burden carried by permanent employees, there is a growing number of people who can’t find enough work hours to make ends meet. About one-third of Ontarians say they would prefer a full-time job if it was on offer — a 43 per cent jump since 2000. Murnighan estimates that if no one worked overtime in Canada, it would create 407,000 full-time jobs across the country.
“From a policy perspective, we talk an awful lot job creation, finding ways to reduce unemployment, providing opportunities for youth. And there’s an awful lot of jobs tied up in overtime.”
The promise of jobs at the CAMI plant as a result of the new program has “stuck very well” in the Ingersoll community, according to Van Boekel, and GM spokesperson Adria Mackenzie says existing employees are “responding positively.” But the type of new jobs the model creates presents problems, even to its advocates.
Although the new employees are union members, they are also temporary workers with no benefits and uncertain schedules. That feeds into a broader trend across a province where an estimated one-third of workers are already in precarious work. Mike Murphy, the union local’s office co-ordinator who helped conceive the CAMI model, says the precedent is “definitely a concern,” although he says a number of “bankers” have gone on to secure permanent jobs. And, he argues, a pool of temporary workers was the only way to secure an overall deal with plant managers.
“Therein lies the problem,” says professor Larry Savage, director of Brock University’s Centre for Labour Studies.
“We see this in the private sector, where unions increasingly on the defensive are negotiating two-tiered contracts where the existing workers are grandfathered into more privileged positions. And the folks who are newly hired — in this case in the temporary pool — have union membership but are not entitled to the same rights and privileges as those members who have been there for a while.”
Savage says workplace benefits such as flexibility for some shouldn’t come at the expense job security for others. That, he argues, can fuel resentment of a privileged core by dividing workers both inside and outside unions.
The issue of precarity is not lost even on CAMI’s full-time workers: Gordie Todd, for one, is using his newfound flexibility to plan for the future, spending his banked time off to study real estate.
“We’ve learned in the auto industry . . . we’ve had ups and downs,” he says. “On the downs when you’re laid off, I’ve discovered that you just can’t sit around and do nothing. So I’m working for career number two.”